Crawling in the Dark rehearsals have nearly come to an end. Here, Assistant Director Anthony Ekundayo-Lennon, talks about the rehearsal process to date and how the actors have been exploring and fleshing out the world of this play.
Crawling in the Dark will be the seventh play we have commissioned for young people, written by Natalie Mitchell it is inspired by The Knot of the Heart by David Eldridge. Recognising the great work we are offering for younger Almeida audiences Crawling in the Dark made it into Lyn Gardner’s (Guardian) theatre picks today! Take Lyn’s advice and book a ticket now for £5. See you next week…
Entering the empty rehearsal room for the first time, I imagine the years and years of companies who have created mind-blowing theatre and honed their craft in this space. The Almeida staff and stage management team have been in here already today. Four tables have been pushed together into the centre of the room and in the middle of the table are neat piles of new scripts, contact sheets and company handbooks for Crawling in the Dark. At one end of the room is enough tea, coffee, fruit, hot water and croissants to feed everyone in the building. And the rumour is that everyone in the building is on their way to this room!
No matter how aware I am of each individual that’s entering the room, I don’t properly catch the moment when it felt packed. One moment there are only three or four people setting bags down and getting a cup of tea and then suddenly the room is a hive of super-activity and chatter whilst 30 or so people are milling around, sharing excitement about the production, and waiting with anticipation for the meet and greet to start. Meanwhile, Michael and designer Signe Beckmann are in their own private world, talking through the model-box (a miniature version of the set). The Crawling in the Dark cast will be using the same revolve that the cast of The Knot of the Heart are using, and its unique design will not only depict the various locations for the play but will also indicate shifts in time/seasons.
As each of the four actors arrive, the look on their faces is an alchemy of calm, sure exuberance and a certain timidity. The cast (Kellie Bright, Tobi Bakare, Michael Lewis and Tahirah Sharif) are soon sitting at the main table looking through their new scripts. One or two are using highlighter pens to mark their lines while another sips from a bottle of water then silently mouths lines, scanning the room and how full it is continuing to get. Natalie Mitchell, the play’s writer, is now also sat at the table. She already has a pencil in hand, hovering over her script. She has the look of a writer that is still fine tuning the dialogue and I feel I can see in her eyes an intense desire to have these characters thoughts written as compassionately and truthfully as possible.
The Almeida staff form a huge circle of people around us. Samantha Lane (Director of Projects) welcomes us on behalf of the Almeida Theatre. Michael Attenborough, the Almeida’s Artistic Director and Director of the play that inspired Crawling in the Dark, The Knot of the Heart, also welcomes us. He emphasises the importance of plays like Crawling in the Dark expanding the repertoire of what the Almeida does. One by one, each member of the circle introduces themselves to us and tells us what their role is within the company. Then, we at the table were invited to introduce ourselves to everyone explaining our role on the production.
With the meet and greet complete, everyone in the room is invited to view the model-box, as Signe talks us through her design. With the model of the set shown, most members of the company leave, as the cast and creative team take their seats again at the big table for the read-through.
The actors immediately get stuck right in: there’s no holding back their sense of committed and inspired intentions to lift the words off the page. The cast are already quite tight and supportive of each other. It’s impressive. Their tones, inflections and quality of connecting, even though simply sat around a table, are a great springboard for the next few weeks of work to come. Natalie is listening deeply to her writing that is now outside of her mind at last. Her eyes are intently fixed on every sentence as each actor takes them on with care and attention. Once and a while she writes a note to herself about a line that she possibly still feels isn’t quite right or needs clarifying.
The rest of the first day is a spent with Michael leading many discussions about the ‘world of the play’ and the memories of each character. During one discussion Michael expresses his initial thought process when beginning work on any new production. ‘What is the norm?’ What is usually going on within the world of these characters when not dealing with or being confronted by the situations we will visit in the story of the play?’
With stage management, the writer, Michael and I in the rehearsal room a second read-through of the play takes place at the table in the centre of the room. This reading has a more laid back feel. An assortment of biscuits, juice, grapes, sweets and coffee are spread all around the table which people nibble on when not needed. Each actor is taking even more time to read and listen to each other and sink deeper into the story. Later in the afternoon, Signe comes back to us and shows us all some drawings of the costumes and also her aerial view sketches of the sections/positions of the revolve for each different scene in the play. Measurements of actors are noted and we continue to discuss the world of the play and the subject of dug addiction and its impact on families. The first day finishes early – short, but intense.
The rest of the week goes very fast, with Michael and the cast, along with Natalie, further creating, talking through, pinning down and adding details to the history of the family in the story. At one stage, Michael prompts the cast and writer with questions about their past, and backstory: ‘for how long were the two teenage characters living with their grandparents? What incidents took place with mum that necessitated the grandparents having to take care of the children? What was life like on the estate that the family used to live on? What’s the new flat like? When did Mum in the play meet the children’s father and what was their courtship like? Where is Dad now?’ These characters are no longer confined to the page: the actors are giving them souls and memories of fear and love.
The week continues with extended discussions about the scene changes and the kind of transitions that Michael wishes to see and hear. Talk of music and or soundscapes take place. The set is discussed again; all of us as a group feeling the need to take another look at the model box so as to really become immersed in the world that we will be working to create during the coming weeks. Natalie and Michael have line change meetings a couple of times so as to discuss any moments of the play that may need to be further clarified.
Each morning between 10 and 11am, I lead the company through a warm up (a mixture of body, voice and mind exercises so as to be properly warmed up for next few hours to come). Michael also joins in with the warm up, nurturing a tight company spirit.
Each day a different scene is read and then stood up on its feet so as to give the actor the chance to gently ease their way into where in the space their character seems to gravitate to or live. The work is gentle and light as if delicately sketching onto a canvas prior to adding more detail and or colour. During one scene being worked Michael says to the cast ‘Remember that we, the audience are not only seeing what is being said or done, we are also looking for and seeing what each character isn’t saying or doing or keeping to themselves for whatever reason’. It is an important point that I commit to memory.
Every now and again the stage managers enter the room with a sofa, kettle or some other piece of furniture or prop that will be used in the play. On the Wednesday, the first Production Meeting takes place during a lunchtime in which all departments involved in producing the play come together with Michael so as to go through and discuss work so far regarding the set, lighting, sound, costume, and other production elements.
On Thursday we had a visit from Liz Khan, a manager for foster carers at Islington Social Services. She talked to the cast about her work, observations and thoughts connected to the children she cares for in the borough. The cast had many questions related to their characters. Liz’s words about babies born addicted to various drugs and the effect that drugs has on parents and children was deeply emotional as well as being full of much needed detail for the actors. The cast were not the same people that they were when they first sat down with her. During the next days, each actor’s portrayal of and sense of their character during the next few days felt transformed; it was a watershed moment for us all.
By the end of the week every scene has been individually re-read, then moved up onto its feet so as to physically sketch out the blocking and overall ‘feel’ of a scene. Some deeply concentrated work has taken place and the actors are continuing to research real world material that can feed into the world of the play. Finally, on Friday, it was arranged for Michael and stage management to go over to the Almeida Theatre to work on the stage with the resolve that the cast will also be using. It was helpful to iron out any possible problems, so that by the time we get to the technical rehearsals, we will not spend all of our time introducing the cast to the revolve’s movement in scene changes!
Suddenly it’s Friday afternoon and Michael declares the first week of rehearsals is at an end. The atmosphere in the room is one of satisfaction with the work done so far and great eagerness to dive even deeper into to the subject and characters during the weeks to come.
As Michael and I leave the Almeida, I know he is very pleased with how everything is going. And although there is still much to discuss, discover, solve and build (some literally) with any possible problems that may arise, his sense of this first week is been one of satisfaction and happiness with how the cast are forming as a company and a pleasure in seeing each character become more and more focused in this production we are creating. A play about life-changing issues, private worlds and feelings that an audience will soon be able to witness on the Almeida Theatre’s stage.
As the actors enter the rehearsal room every day I observe the very same expressions on all their faces: excitement and great anticipation as to how this second week will unfold; at no moment do I see that energy dip. Our ritual of morning company warm-up (still including Michael) is continuing. This involves a blending of body/vocal exercises (with a good dose of tongue twisters thrown in) and sometimes a good game to finish off, such as group tag. This week, Michael introduces a brilliant exercise to really get the brain working. It entails looking at a monologue from any Shakespeare play with all its capital letters, commas and full stops removed. It’s a brilliant journey through the initially apparent swarm of floating words while the whole company searches its way through the text, attempting at making sense of it again. No matter what script you are using as an actor/director, it served as a really good reminder not to take any text for granted, to approach it with respect, focus and a complete awareness as to the intention of the chosen words.
This week, Michael also has the actors take part in some improvisations. None of these scenes will be seen as part of the ultimate performance; these are scenarios that are moments in the characters lives outside of what is in the script. This is exiting work, as each actor is delving deeper into the background story of their character, creating actual memories to pull upon and utilize within the spirit of each scene. So much mind-blowing material is being created by the cast while improvising. One scene I witness is breathtaking and heartbreaking: Kellie Bright (Liz) creates a moment with Tahirah Sharif (Amber) and Michael Lewis (Nathan). She is back home after having scared her two teenage children by being away for days without being in touch, as she’s been unable to control her need to have a ‘fix’. On the verge of tears, Kellie portrays the pain, love and desperate need to be a better mum while the children stare at her, themselves still numb from having not known where she has been for the last few days. ‘I’m sorry’ says Liz, ‘I promise I won’t do it again….I promise I will get better, I’ll show you….Then you’ll believe me’. The saddest aspect of this moment is that Amber and Nathan’s mum wasn’t saying that she would never take drugs again, only that she would not disappear for days on end like that again. And the children knew it: I’m sure I heard a pin drop. If the scene had continued any longer there would not have been a dry eye in the room.
This week is full of adding more detail, shade and colour. Over the next few days, Michael runs each scene over again. In the first run of a scene, each actor recalls as best they can the gentle ‘sketching’ work from the previous week. Hardly anything is forgotten and the cast are more or less happy. The scene is then run again. This time, Michael and the cast stop at points to add more detail, and be clear as to each character’s intentions. Rehearsals are swift with Michael soon running the scenes two at a time.
By Wednesday every scene has been worked on in concentrated detail, so that nobody has any doubts as to the meaning, intended flow and energy levels needed to tell the story. Lorraine (stage manager ‘on the book’) when not making notes of blocking in the book, or noting possible line changes, requests for other props/costume, and also timing the running of each scene, is always ready to feed lines to the actors and in quick-time speed, set up each new location as needed.
Another Wednesday production meeting arrives and for the second week once again it is a calm, un-problematic and easy going meeting, as all departments are happy with the flow of things so far. We also learn that there is a possibility that we can have access to the Almeida stage and rehearse on the revolve on the Monday of next week
On Thursday, we change from our current Almeida rehearsal room and go just down the road to Union Chapel. The change in location does nothing to affect the focused and committed team spirit of the company. Once rehearsals begin, as to further serve each actor’s journey of fine-tuning their character, Michael suggests some hot-seating. In turn, each actor, in character, sits in front of us while the rest of us ask them various questions about their past and present or sometimes any notions of their future. It is a powerful session and testament as to how deeply the actors have been working on the play. By now, almost all lines are learnt. Sometimes one of the cast might ask for the first couple of words to their line but in the main, everyone is almost off-book.
A very striking moment takes place during a lunch time as Kellie (Liz), Michael and the stage management team discuss the mechanics of smoking crack cocaine, which we see Liz do in the play. Gathered around a laptop we read advice websites for people wishing to stop using drugs. On other parts of the internet we see photographs depicting, in minute detail, how to ‘smoke crack cocaine’ and ‘how to make a crack-pipe’. I was taking notes of the likely props that Kellie is wishing to rehearse with, (plastic bottle, empty biro pen tube, tin foil etc) and I’m really getting into how exact the preparation is that will be seen by the audience. I am suddenly struck by the thought that, as we are here researching and discussing the best portrayal of smoking crack cocaine, not to far from us somebody may actually doing this and maybe fighting the urge to buy another ‘rock’. It makes me wonder about the discussions that might happen after young people see the play, and how close any of them have come to seeing in reality what our actors will be creating on stage.
In the afternoon, we receive the good news that we can work on the Almeida stage all day on Monday next week. When the cast are told this they look like they’ve been given a birthday present – the transitions between scenes are an element of the production that they all wish to get to grips with. Writer Natalie also joins us for a short while this week to watch some of the scenes, and she and Michael continue to discuss specific lines so as to be clear that there are no gaps or areas that are unclear.
Friday morning arrives and before I lead the warm-up Michael tells me that he intends to run the whole play in the afternoon. After the warm-up he informs the actors too. The gear shift in the room is obvious while each actor does their individual mental and physical preparation. In the morning, Scenes One to Three are run, and after some brief notes, the process is repeated. After a short break, Scenes Four to Six go through the same process. After more notes, the actors go for lunch. In the afternoon the whole play is run for the first time. It goes very well. Hardly any problems arise and the shifts in scene/time are working well. The cast’s care, research, building of character and attention to detail shine through. We have a play!
Furthermore, for stage management, Michael and the cast, this first complete run sheds light on any areas that will need special attention in our next – and final – week. Time is flowing so fast. Week two is complete. Now, the play is ready to be run more times, and for us as a team to refine everything created so far.
By Anthony Ekundayo-Lennon